The employee, a licensed mortician, submitted her resignation to the employer, because the “on-call” requirements of the job conflicted with her family obligations. Prior to the effective date of the resignation, the employee sustained a compensable low back injury, resulting in restrictions. Rehabilitation services were provided and a Rehabilitation Plan was completed and signed by the parties, with the goal being “return to work, different employer.” When another funeral director left, the employer made a job offer to the employee that would have resulted in no wage loss. The employer agreed to accommodate the employee’s restrictions. However, no proposal was made to accommodate the employee’s family situation. The employee rejected the job and TTD benefits were discontinued, citing the rejection of the job offer. The discontinuance was granted at an Administrative Conference and affirmed at a subsequent hearing. The Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (“WCCA”), however, reversed the discontinuance of benefits, citing Minn. Stat. Sec. 176.101, Subd.1(i), that allows a discontinuance of TTD benefits, if an employee refuses an offer of work that is “consistent with a plan of rehabilitation.” Since the Rehabilitation Plan stated that the goal was return to work with a different employer, not the date of injury employer, the WCCA ruled that there was no basis under statute for terminating TTD benefits. The WCCA also indicated that the rationale used by the compensation judge, which cited a refusal of “suitable gainful employment” did not apply, since that “standard is only applicable where there is no filed Rehabilitation Plan.” The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the WCCA. The Court stated that “By virtue of their signatures on the Rehabilitation Plan, the parties agreed [emphasis in the original] that Gilbertson would return to a job with a different employer, not Dingmann. Dingmann had an opportunity to object to the terms of the Rehabilitation Plan, but it did not; it is now bound by the terms of the agreement.” Based on this reasoning, the Court indicated that the “plain language of Minn. Stat. Sec. 176.101, Subd.1(i), an offer to return to work with the same employer is not ‘consistent with’ an employee’s Rehabilitation Plan that states that the vocational goal is to return to work with a different employer.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Anderson described the practical consequences of the decision of the Court. Justice Anderson indicated that the “employer has just been ordered to continue financial benefits for a departing employee while she searches for employment from her employer’s competitor. And the employer cannot limit its continuing liability by offering the employee equivalent employment.” Justice Anderson went on to state that “Employers may be less likely to rely on recommendations of qualified rehabilitation consultants. Employers may seek more review by legal counsel of workers’ compensation forms previously thought ‘routine.’ There may be less interest in accommodating an employee requests for return-to-work goal in a QRC plan.”
As Justice Anderson indicated, the ruling of the Supreme Court significantly raises the importance of what may have been previously thought to be a “routine” form. The Rehabilitation Plan has now been determined to be a “binding” agreement among the parties. We recommend that Rehabilitation Plans be analyzed very closely before they are signed. In particular, with regard to the area of the “vocational goal,” we recommend that the plan not be limited to simply one goal. Our recommended best practice is that the “goal” be identified as a return to work to the same employer, and return to work with a different employer. If the employee and QRC do not agree to this, a Rehabilitation Request may need to be filed. In addition, to the extent that there are any “agreements” in the Rehabilitation Plan that may be beneficial to the defense of the case, these should now be given increased importance. Finally, since the plan has now been given the level of significance not previously assumed, and, in effect, viewed to be a binding contract, if the QRC fails to complete the form properly, arguably, the plan can be rejected as being defective and incomplete.
Click here to read the text of the Supreme Court’s decision.
Contact any of the Arthur Chapman Workers' Compensation attorneys to discuss these changes.